The Bicycle Thief. Directed by Vittorio De Sica. One of the jewels in the crown of Italian cinema and possibly the greatest example of Italian Neorealism, this tender tale tells the story of one man’s day with his son and a crime that turns the father’s life upside down. The father, played expertly by the expressive Lamberto Maggiorani, relies on a bicycle he needs in order to do his job, putting posters up on the streets of postwar Rome. His son (Enzo Staiola) accompanies him during the work but when a young thief steals the bike, their family’s livelihood and the father’s honor are tested. The heartbreaking final scene and last few shots are testaments to De Sica’s ability to craft emotional films about familial connection, as in the later masterpiece Two Women starring Sophia Loren as a mother struggling during WWII. The Bicycle Thief won a much-deserved Honorary Oscar for best foreign film and also received a nomination for the excellent screenplay by Cesare Zavattini, although in actuality there were five other writers credited in the film (including De Sica himself).
Cry of the City. Directed by Robert Siodmak. This film noir is not as well known as many of its contemporaries, but it’s worth the watch. Victor Mature was probably never better than here, playing Lt. Candella with a mix of hard-bitten toughness and sympathy for the cop killer he’s hunting, the always-reliable Richard Conte. Mature and Conte are ably supported by Fred Clark, Shelley Winters in one of her earliest credited roles, Betty Garde, a teenage Debra Paget in her film debut and the physically menacing character actress Hope Emerson. Paget is far too young to be playing Conte’s girlfriend – Paget was born in 14-15 and Conte was 38 – but I don’t recall the characters even kissing. As for the film’s technical elements, the score by Alfred Newman is as wonderful as his usual output and the crisp black-and-white cinematography by Lloyd Ahern makes the most of the characters’ urban surroundings. Filming crucial scenes on the streets of New York gives the movie an authentic flavor.
The Fallen Idol. Directed by Carol Reed. I know there are a number of more famous Reed films, including Odd Man Out, The Third Man and Oliver!, but this memorable drama ought to be thought of as one of the finest works in all of British cinema. Bobby Henrey is unforgettable as Phillipe, the little boy who witnesses more than he should and soon learns the difficulty of mixing truth and lies. Henrey is one of the finest child actors I have ever seen, capable of conveying amusing sweetness and frightened bewilderment. His emotions are especially affecting via the lens of cinematographer Georges Périnal. The other main actors give terrific performances as well, especially Ralph Richardson and Sonia Dresdel as Baines and Mrs. Baines respectively. Michèle Morgan is good too, but she does not outshine the other leads. The film is based a story by Graham Greene, who wrote the screenplay and received an Oscar nomination for his efforts. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, we all have access to this subtly and uniquely haunting film.
Key Largo. Directed by John Huston. I first saw Key Largo when I was a little kid and it made a strong impression on me. Humphrey Bogart, visiting friend Lionel Barrymore’s hotel in the Florida Keys, meets Barrymore’s daughter (Lauren Bacall) and they have their usual perfect chemistry – naturally, one would assume, since they had been been married for a few years. Bacall’s character is more of a normal woman than a femme fatale à la The Big Sleep. The big bad villain is Edward G. Robinson, a gangster with a moll in tow (Claire Trevor, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her boozy performance). As a massive hurricane approaches the island, the tensions in the hotel, which Robinson and his cronies have commandeered as a hideout, reach the breaking point. This noir-esque drama is exciting and definitely keeps you on your toes until the end.
The Search. Directed by Fred Zinnemann. Standing alongside The Bicycle Thief and The Fallen Idol, The Search stars another extremely talented young actor: Ivan Jandl, who won a Juvenile Oscar for his touching performance of a boy searching for his mother in the aftermath of WWII. Jarmila Novotna is equally moving as the mother. Most interestingly of all, however, is Montgomery Clift in his film debut. Clift plays the GI who finds Jandl and helps him find Novotna, along with the aid of Aline MacMahon. I’ve been a fan of Clift for years but seeing The Search – for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination – solidified my admiration for him. He is thoroughly likeable here, playing a regular Joe with the occasional comic tone. Certain moments of the film feel more like a documentary than a fiction film, adding to the sense of urgency. If you get a chance, check this film out; you will undoubtedly be bawling long before the end.